Emma Dunch: After almost 20 years in the Big Apple, it's taken me six months to unwind my life

Interview by Molly O'Brien, Marketing & Communications Specialist, Advance. 

In December 2017, Emma Dunch touched down in Sydney after spending two decades living and working in New York City. The reason she returned to Australian soil was to commence one of her biggest roles to date: the CEO of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra - fittingly, where she began her career over 20 years ago as a marketing assistant. 

Emma graduated from the League of American Orchestras’ prestigious Orchestral Management Fellowship Program in 2004, and has worked with leading international orchestras since.

During her time in New York, Emma founded DUNCH, a cultural management firm that has advised more than 125 creative organisations across the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia on fundraising, financial management, strategic planning and leadership development. To date, Emma has worked with 38 leading classical music organizations internationally and has helped raise more than $250 million for cultural causes.

Advance caught up with Emma in New York shortly before she moved back to Australia to speak about what she's looking forward to most, what she'll miss, and what she's hoping to contribute to the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. 

It's quite poetic that you're going back to the Sydney Symphony Orchestra (SSO) after starting your career there. 

It is quite fitting. Recently, one of the musicians from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra reminded me that when I was leaving when I was leaving for America 20 years ago, I stood up in front of the orchestra and waved my plane ticket and said, “I have a one-way ticket to New York, and I'm never coming back. Except maybe one day to run this place!" Now I actually am going back to run the place, and it's really the only reason that I would return to Australia; to have a leadership role in the Arts and Culture sector - and with my hometown orchestra, in particular.

Would you ever consider going back if you didn't have such an amazing job opportunity?

It was not in my mind to go back. I'm so happy in New York and I've had a fantastic run of it, but I am very excited about this opportunity and I can't wait to get started. And, like so many Australians, I have an ageing parent, whom I love dearly. I also have family and nieces now who are grown and are wonderful young women and I would like to be part of their lives.

Will you take time off or hit the ground running? 

I won't take time off, no. I have been working part-time remotely via technological means ever since I was offered the job, so I'm already about two or three months into it on a part-time basis.

I think it's going to be a process, integrating myself back into the Sydney lifestyle. Just like it was a process when I first moved here when everything was so foreign. At least going back to Australia, there’s more of a cultural context. It's also been 20 years since I last lived there – entire suburbs in Sydney have been built since!

What drew you here originally 20 years ago? 

I really wanted to have a crack at living and working in the centre of the global cultural industry, which was either New York, Berlin, or London. I went to London and found that I wasn’t as excited about it as I was about the prospect of coming to New York. And then I was very fortunate to be offered a job in Classical Music Public Relations in NYC, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Why were you so excited about New York? 

"It's definitely the scale of things here: for example, in the five boroughs of Manhattan, there are 375 different theatre companies, seven symphony orchestras, and around 4,000 dance artists. So it's a lot to work with, and offers enormous variety and challenge. I think at this point I've seen every kind of problem an arts organization can tackle, and we've solved many of them.

What skills did you establish in New York that you're planning on applying to your role as the CEO of the SSO?

The biggest skill that I have learned in New York has been entrepreneurship, and it's one of the reasons the SSO was interested to hire me. When I was forging my career in New York, I needed to pave my own path by adopting an entrepreneurial mindset. Building a career is a big jigsaw puzzle; it’s not linear. It’s about thinking things such as: what do I have to work with? What's the best combination here? How can I deliver better value? How do I think creatively about my next step? Where can I have the most impact? And so that level of entrepreneurship and creativity and constant reinvention also allows you to innovate for organizations.

Now I'm heading into the second half of my career in Sydney, and I'm excited to go home and bring that leadership and that diversity of experience back home to Australia.

What do you think you're going to miss the most about New York?

I will miss the friends that I've made. One sad thing about leaving Australia 20 years ago was also leaving behind my school friends, my Uni friends, my work friends. I had to make a whole new set in this country. And now I have 20 years’ worth of great friends from all around the world, that I am leaving behind again. I'll also miss the work I've been doing. It's been great, I love it. But, I'm very excited about a new chapter in Australia, especially with this particular organization and its needs. I really feel like I can help, which is my biggest motivation. I want to have an influence and a positive impact. 

Are you going back to Australia for good? 

I could never have predicted the path, and so I never try to predict the path. It's amazing how, the "harder you work," the "luckier you get!"

What is the culture of the SSO like? 

Everyone has been very warm and welcoming. It’s a lovely family environment. I would say that Symphony Orchestra musicians are usually hired for life, and so they have a wonderful long-term view of pretty much everything because they usually play until they retire.

Has anything surprised you while you’ve been packing up your life in New York? 

I was on a phone call with the SSO recently, and my colleagues were talking about concerts on Thursday night, and they said, "Oh no. That's late-night shopping night!" And I started to laugh. I asked what late night shopping was – and they proceeded to inform me of its importance. I think I am accustomed to New York city being 24/7, it never stops!

Do you feel any sadness about leaving? 

I think that in your life and in your career you get to these natural turning points, and after spending 20 years here, I feel as though I got to the top of my field. I got where I wanted to go. And so, I have no regrets about winding up this chapter and taking on a new one. I see a whole new set of challenges to sink my teeth into. You know, I'm sure there will be another chapter after that and another chapter after that. I hope so because that's what makes my career exciting, and I don't think I'll come back to do the same work.

What won't you miss about New York?

I definitely won't miss all the snow. I'm not a fan of these very long winters. And then, in my experience, to be really successful in New York, you have to be the hardest worker, the fastest worker, the most responsive, produce the best work, and be available pretty much 24/7 -- for decades at a time. That’s what it took to build my company and get to where I am now. I'm really proud of all that work and the impact we've had, but now that I'm older, I'm really looking forward to focusing on a single organization that is so important to Australia's creative landscape. I've had an interesting journey so far, and I'm really excited to see what comes next!